Ear infections are the most common reason children are brought to the doctor and estimates suggest that by their third birthday, 5 in 6 children will have suffered from an ear infection. They’re not exclusive to children either, adults can get them too. If you’re having ear pain or your child is complaining of ear pain, you are probably wondering “do ear infections go away on their own?” or “do I really have to take my child to the doctor for another ear infection?”. 

What Is an Ear Infection? 

An ear infection, officially known as otitis media (OM) is the inflammation of the middle ear. It is usually caused by bacteria that materializes when fluid builds up behind the eardrum. They can also be caused by viral infections, which makes treatment more complicated because antibiotics won’t help in this instance.

The three main types of ear infections are acute otitis media, otitis media with effusion, and chronic otitis media with effusion. 

How do I know if I have an ear infection?

Symptoms of ear infection include some, or all, of the following:

  • Ear pain: This symptom is obvious in older children and adults. In infants too young to speak, look for signs of pain like rubbing or tugging ears, crying more than usual, trouble sleeping, acting fussy/irritable. 
  • Loss of appetite: Pressure in the middle ear changes as you swallow, this can cause your ears to “pop” when you eat - a normal process made painful by the infection causing more pain and less desire to eat.
  • Irritability: Loss of appetite, pain, poor balance and fever can all cause irritability.
  • Poor sleep: The combination of ear pain and pressure in the ear can make it especially difficult to sleep.
  • Fever: Ear infections can cause temperatures from 100° F (38 C) up to 104° F. Some 50% of children will have a fever with their ear infection.
  • Drainage from the ear: Yellow, brown, or white fluid that is not earwax may seep from the ear. This may mean that the eardrum has ruptured (broken).
  • Trouble hearing: Bones of the middle ear connect to the nerves that send electrical signals (as sound) to the brain. Fluid behind the eardrums slows down movement of these electrical signals through the inner ear bones.
  • Poor Balance: Your ears help you maintain good balance, but an infected ear interferes with this system so you may feel dizzy.

How to tell if you have an ear infection?

Generally if you are experiencing several of the above symptoms, then your healthcare provider will look at your, or your child’s, ear using an instrument called an otoscope. A healthy eardrum will be pinkish gray in color and translucent (clear). If infection is present, the eardrum may be inflamed, swollen or red.

Your healthcare provider may also check the fluid in the middle ear using a pneumatic otoscope, which blows a small amount of air at the eardrum. This should cause the eardrum to move back and forth. The eardrum will not move as easily if there is fluid inside the ear.

Another test, tympanometry, uses air pressure to check for fluid in the middle ear. If needed, your healthcare provider will order a hearing test, performed by an audiologist, to determine possible hearing loss if you or your child has had long lasting or frequent ear infections or fluid in the middle ears that is not draining.

Of course, if you have your own digital otoscope then you can look in your, or your child’s, ear canal and see if anything looks irregular - swollen, red or draining fluid. This is a good time to have photos of your ear when it’s healthy for comparison. If it looks infected then you should have an in-person appointment with your physician.

What does an ear infection feel like?

Ear infections have a number of symptoms including pain, fever, loss of appetite, poor sleeping, irritability, drainage, poor hearing and loss of balance.

What does an ear infection look like?

 A healthy eardrum will be pinkish gray in color and translucent (clear). If infection is present, the eardrum may be inflamed, swollen or red and there may be a fluid discharge.

Do ear infections go away on their own?

In the past, if your child had an ear infection, doctors almost always prescribed an antibiotic. The problem with this, though, is that bacteria can become immune to antibiotics. Not to mention, not all ear infections are bacterial. If they are viral, an antibiotic won’t help. 

In some cases, an ear infection will go away on its own, like a fever. You can treat it with over-the-counter painkillers (be sure to consult with your doctor on dosage for babies and kids) or prescription ear drops. 

Antibiotics are usually prescribed for severe infections, for babies younger than 6 months, and if your child is prone to illness. An ear infection, left untreated, could result in severe pain and hearing loss. 

The answer to whether an ear infection will go away on its own is complicated so that is why it’s always a good idea to consult with a doctor.

What to do for ear infection

Most mild ear infections clear up without intervention. Some of the following methods are effective in relieving the symptoms of a mild ear infection:

  • Apply a warm cloth to the affected ear.
  • Take over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication such as ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol). 
  • Use OTC or prescription ear drops to relieve pain.
  • Take OTC decongestants such as pseudoephedrine (Sudafed). 

Now is a good time to have a digital otoscope to check your ears and take photos of your ear drums, paying close attention to any swelling or redness. If your symptoms get worse or don’t improve, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor. 

They may prescribe antibiotics if the patient’s  ear infection is chronic or doesn’t appear to be improving. A minor surgery may be an option if your ear infection isn’t eliminated with the usual medical treatments or if you have many ear infections over a short period of time. This usually occurs in children and results in the doctors placing tubes in the patient’s ears to allow fluid to drain out.

Conclusion

In conclusion, ear infections are a common ailment in children, but adults can also get them. Ear infections have a number of symptoms that should be kept track of if you want to get a proper diagnosis from your physician. A digital otoscope is a helpful tool to monitor your ears’ health and can guide whether you need to seek professional medical help or just let the ear ache go away on its own.